This bit of writing is based on documentation and monitoring of the situation of workers in the garment sector conducted by Labour Education Foundation (LEF), one of the SAAPE labour rights campaign member organisations, based in Lahore, Pakistan in February 2021. The study has highlighted the discrimination that garment workers face in terms of their overall status, lack of implementation of labour laws, lack of coverage under laws, working conditions, occupational health and safety, non-implementation of minimum wage, lack of protection by the state and its effects on their dignity. The 15 case studies were compiled under this initiative as evidence of the kinds of violations of labour rights generally and especially in a pandemic situation. The case studies analyses the ground realities and dimensions of discrimination among the workers in garment sectors.
Sexual harassment based on gender is common in almost all factories that are been faced by women garment workers. Female workers articulated their experiences as men always stare at them and make inappropriate comments when they return home especially at night. In the factories, there is no respect for women. The supervisors use abusive language. Some supervisors offer “friendship” and if a woman refuses to indulge with them she is treated by the supervisor as an enemy. Male colleagues also stare and pass comments, female workers do not see any solution against the harassment, there are no opportunities for improving the situation, no training against harassment or discrimination, women are vulnerable in factories as they face hooting and harassment from both male workers and the management. Complaining against this situation is not an option, as the management dismisses the complainant along with the perpetrator, saying that she must have done something wrong to invite this kind of behaviour.
Along with rude behavior, supervisors disrespect women and speak loudly to them. They comment about women’s clothes and painted nails. Moreover, the management discourages workers from talking to each other, especially male and female workers. Women workers are facing multi-dimensional discrimination – based on sex, gender, age. Supervisors talk with male workers rudely, abuse them, and even comment about their mothers, daughters, and sisters with abusive language. The working environment is very challenging for women as the management mostly discourages women workers from making complaints about harassment on the job. Male colleagues emphasize themselves saying earning money to run a house is the main responsibility of men which shows that male workers have perceived notions about the gender division of labour. The study anlaysed gender-based discrimination in terms of wages. The male workers are given higher wages in comparison with women for the same work.
In the case of Home-Based Workers (HBWs), they generally earn between 10,000 – 12,000 rupees a month for working 10 – 12 hours daily. According to the study, there are incidents of discrimination, violation of workers rights, and a division of work whereby women are not given the work of stitching jeans in the factory, as the bosses claim that men do this work more neatly while women workers believed that as the wages for stitching jeans is higher, so the management want to make male workers more satisfied by giving this opportunity only to them. Female workers are paid less than men for the same value of work, while their working hours are generally higher than that of male workers. The other main reason for facing discrimination by female workers is due to the appointment of male workers in most of the higher posts like supervisors and management positions. They try to show that women are weak and preference is given to men during the recruitment process. The orders with higher rates are always given to the male workers.
In one of the factories in Faisalabad city, in the past women used to work in a factory. However, in present days, no women are in employment there which reflects how the opportunities for women can be narrowed just because of existing gender disparities. Though these are some issues that are not discussed and officially not documented as well.
Moreover, in most factories, women workers are treated as less skilled employees and are hired in such sections which require no skill/less skill like in the clipping section but in the stitching sector, more male workers are hired with better wages in compare with female workers. The starting wage in the clipping section is 18,500 rupees, while in the stitching unit the starting wage is 22,000 rupees per month. Besides this, some female garment workers shared that male workers are given one-hour break, but women only get 15 minutes.
In terms of wages, generally, garment sector workers were earning less than the announced minimum wage by the Government. Some who were getting salaries around 17500 – 22000 described it as insufficient to meet their basic requirements. According to the opinion of the workers, their monthly wages should be between 25000 – 40000 rupees to lead a decent life and some of them demanded that along with this salary the government should provide health and educational facilities for their family members.
While discussing the benefits of being a formal worker, the majority of the workers said that formal workers have many benefits, including social security cards, registration with the old-age benefits institute, proper time frame, better wages and most importantly they can have some sort of job security. On the other hand, in informal work, irregularity in orders is common, wages are too low and informal workers are not recognised workers and are not protected by the laws.
During the survey, in two factories, workers said that there is no discrimination based on religion and all workers are given the same benefits and their functions are celebrated by the management regardless of their religion but there are other examples like some workers have faced religious discrimination, as on the festival of Eid, Muslims are not only awarded time off but also Eidi bonuses, but on Easter, Christians only receive a day off from work. In some instances, Muslim workers do not like to eat and sit with Christian colleagues. Those who are from the Christian community are given lower priority in employment and denied annual promotions, skill development, and salary increment.
At times workers themselves have some perceptions based on religion and sects. If the owner of the factory is an Ahmadi then workers do not want to work in his factory. Even family members do not allow the workers to work there because of social pressure and perception in the community. The earning in this kind of factory has no Barkat (blessed).
During the survey, some workers shared about the age discrimination among male and female workers while hiring them. The factories hire women who are under or around 30 – 35 years and they firmly believe that after this age women are unable to work properly, whereas the factory keeps male workers up to 50 years of age.
During the survey, it was found that there was one garment factory in Faisalabad where the workers were paid wages even in the lockdown in 2020 and were provided with ration items. However, all big factories started laying off their workers in huge numbers and some factories remained closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers were not paid salaries of one and a half months during the lockdown period. Even in most of the factories, workers were asked to take safety measures like wearing masks, using sanitizers by workers themselves, and it became an extra burden for them due to the financial crisis during the pandemic. Lack of safety measures is a major problem for workers in factories. No hand sanitizers or soap are available, and social distancing was not made possible by factory management.
In two factories, where management provided masks and sanitizers for the use by workers, temperatures were also checked, and sanitizing cabins were also installed at the gate. If workers were found to have a fever, management did not allow them into the factory. There is a focus on cleanliness, toilets are also clean and hand washers are also available, filtered clean drinking water is available and masks for employees were available even before the COVID-19 pandemic. In different sections, required safety gadgets, like earplugs in the embroidery section, are made available for the workers. There is a daycare center for mothers who have small babies.
Regarding the Ehsaas Emergency Programme, launched by the Government of Pakistan for the financial assistance in the context of the economic hardship being experienced by the vulnerable due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, LEF was not able to approach any worker who received the support from that programme. Most of the workers received a response from the government authority that he/she are not eligible even every worker are affected by COVID-19. More than that the factory refused to give a bonus to workers with escaping words that they were out of business. After lockdown, the factory dismissed some workers, while some have to work on alternative days with half salary, as the factory has not received enough orders to accommodate the previous workforce. Lack of orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the main reasons for the dismissal of workers from the factory.
The survey also observed that the management dismissed those workers who become the ‘troublemakers’ for the factory, especially those who are raising voices for workers’ rights or talking about forming a union. The post-COVID-19 situation deteriorated more. Only about 50 per cent of the workers regained their jobs. Similarly, home-based workers have less work as the factory has not had enough orders. The rate of order piece is even reduced to 50 per cent which vigorously impacted the employment as well as the wages of the workers.
– Labour Education Foundation (LEF), Lahore, Pakistan